Bush's National Testing Plan Nears Passage

K-12 Testing

President Bush’s proposal to require every state to test every student each year in grades 3-8 has passed the House and is likely to pass the Senate with substantial support from both Republicans and Democrats. The legislation will require schools, districts and states to demonstrate test score gains, both in general and for historically low-scoring populations, or face loss of federal funds (see Examiner, Winter 2000-01).


The testing plan is part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which includes Title I remedial education. The legislation now goes to conference committee, which will reconcile differences in the two versions over the summer.


Score gain requirements are one area of contention, with each chamber offering its own complex formula for determining “adequate yearly progress” of schools and of groups within schools. Both houses require nearly all students to reach the “proficient” level on state tests within about a decade, even though states differ greatly in their definition of “proficient.” In both versions, students in schools which fail to make adequate progress will be eligible to enroll in other public schools or use their pro-rata share of Title I funds for private tutoring. No federal money can be used for private school vouchers, as the president originally proposed.


The Senate bill requires states to administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to samples of students and to use NAEP scores to help determine whether states are making progress. The House did not include a similar provision.


Congressional Debate
In the House, a coalition of liberal and minority Democrats and very conservative Republicans opposed the bill. Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) offered an amendment to strike the testing and accountability provisions and replace them with language from the current law, which requires state testing three times between grades 3 and 12 and includes adequate progress provisions. The amendment was defeated 255-173, with 119 Democrats, including most African American and Latino representatives, 52 Republicans and two Independents voting for it. Opposition to the annual testing plan increased in the month before the vote due to grassroots pressure and media coverage of testing flaws.


In the Senate, an effort by Paul Wellstone (D-MN) to delay implementation of the consequences attached to the testing requirements failed. An amendment to make implementation of the testing accountability provisions conditional on full funding for Title I programs was not expected to pass.


Sen. Wellstone did win support for an amendment that requires states to show their exams meet standards developed by “national experts on educational testing” and are of “adequate technical quality” for each purpose for which ESEA requires them to be used, and to provide analyses of how each child did on each test item to schools, which few states now do. The amendment also provides funds for research and development of “enhanced assessments” that measure higher order skills and can include “performance, curriculum-, and technology-based assessments.” The amendment will be subject to negotiations between House and Senate.


Ineffective Opposition
Critics of the plan were not able to mount effective opposition to the mandated tests, in part because groups had different priorities and inconsistent strategies for the “education reform” package. Some organizations concentrated heavily on battling the president's plan for school vouchers, which was never likely to pass, and his “Straight A’s” plan to essentially free states from regulatory constraints on how they could spend federal dollars.


A few organizations, including the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Black School Educators and the Alliance for Childhood joined with FairTest to oppose any increased testing (see article, p.13).


The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the premier national civil rights and education coalition, did not directly oppose the testing requirements, but pointed out, “The great majority of states have failed to meet their obligations under current [federal] law to develop fair and valid assessments aligned to state standards,” and questioned the ability of states to develop high-quality exams. LCCR called on Congress to ensure that newly-mandated tests are aligned with state standards and include provisions to prevent test misuse, particularly the use of tests as a sole criterion in high-stakes decision-making. They also sought language to ensure that students with limited English proficiency be “tested in the language and form most likely to yield valid results,” and sought funds for professional development to help teachers improve their use of high-quality classroom assessments.


The National Association of State Boards of Education opposed the mandates largely on financial grounds, asserting that the Bush requirement would cost $7 billion for new test design and administration, an estimate challenged by test publishers. The Council of Chief State School Officers argued, as did some other education groups, that there is no need to test every year for school or state accountability purposes.


However, most education organizations did not support the Hoekstra-Frank amendment.


Several factors combined to ease passage of Bush’s testing plan: steady erosion of opposition to testing among Democrats during the Clinton administration; unwillingness of many “local control” Republicans to oppose a president from their own party, particularly since Bush was adamant about increased testing; powerful support from business groups; and lack of a coherently organized opposition.


The results, if not blocked by ongoing organizing (see story, p. 14) will be a massive increase in testing, no meaningful requirements for school improvement (just increased test scores), and low-quality assessments that will harm educational quality. Children and educators will clearly suffer, as will society both for the damage done to schools and for the failure to take positive steps to improve education. Political opportunists, business interests, and testing companies are the only constituencies that will initially benefit from the new federal testing mandate.


Nonetheless, as the growing resistance to tests at the state level demonstrates (see story, p. 1), the testing wars are far from over.